When Native communities adopt

🕔May 28, 2007

Adoption: it’s an emotionally charged word.

Or perhaps I just think it is—because I was adopted as a baby. As often as not, when I tell that to people who don’t know me, there’s a moment where they search my face, wondering whether it’s okay to talk about it. Perhaps this is because the term is still linked, for many people, to questions of identity, loss of heritage, and sometimes shame.

When you couple the term “adoption” with “non-native” and “First Nations,” these negative associations often multiply further—thanks to the legacy of First Nations children being placed, by white social institutions, into the care of white families or group homes where, intentionally or not, they become alienated from their cultural and spiritual roots.

That’s why I was intrigued when I moved to northern BC and first heard about a very different kind of adoption. This one involved non-native people being ceremonially adopted, usually as adults, into First Nations communities.

Through casual inquiries, I learned that the practice is common among First Nations across Canada, and is regarded by anyone adopted as a highly meaningful and positive experience. It also became clear that most of my non-native peers were only dimly aware of it, if at all. When I set out to learn more, it was difficult to find much academic research on the subject.

“I don’t think it’s been written about or studied much…you might be on the cutting edge by asking these questions!” laughs Deanna Nyce, chief executive officer for the Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a, or the Nisga’a University College, in New Aiyansh. She is Tsimshian by birth, and Nisga’a by marriage. “This would be the subject of a great master’s thesis!”

Nyce, Frank Collison of the Council of the Haida Nation, and Larry Patsey, chief of the Dawamuuwx house in the Gitxsan’s Gisthaast (Fireweed) clan, explained what this kind of adoption involves.

According to them, some customs around “clan adoption” (as it’s sometimes called) of non-native people differ slightly from nation to nation, but key elements are consistent.

Adoptions take place during a formal ceremony, held on the group’s traditional territory during a feast. The feast is open to all house or clan members and is usually the occasion of other group business as well.

To formalize an adoption, a chief calls the prospective adoptee to the front. He then bestows a name on this person, in the language of the group, and announces it at least twice.

Sometimes the person is given exclusive right to use a name that has been consecutively ‘worn’ by individuals, and passed down through generations. It’s understood that the name will eventually be transferred to someone else after the wearer’s death.

But it’s unusual to offer non-natives such historical names, because they’re usually associated with bloodlines, leadership responsibilities, oral histories, traditional songs, and title to geographically defined areas for fishing, gathering and hunting. Because such rights aren’t conferred to a non-native through adoption, non-native adoptees more commonly receive a one-time name that has been chosen by clan members.

“In the last little while, there has been a trend toward creating new names, which aren’t historically important to the clan, so [historical] names can be reserved for clan members,” explains Collison. “We try to create a name that is suitable to that person’s characteristics or personality.”

Three years ago, Collison adopted a young woman into his family. Abby Mendez was very attached to his children, very involved with the community and like a daughter to him. During her adoption ceremony, he named her Jaadkoyas, or “precious girl,” and then he and two of his sisters wrapped a traditional Haida blanket around her shoulders.

Prayers, speeches and acknowledgements may follow the announcement of a name. Adoptees typically acknowledge the honour by offering a gift (such as money, food or other materials) to the person who calls their name, and sometimes to others who have figured prominently in their relationship with the group.

Nyce and Collison say anyone can initiate the adoption of a non-native person, but it must have the support of clan or house members, and be realized by an announcement from a hereditary chief or wing chief.

Forever after, the adoptee will be considered a member of the group, and even referred to as a brother, sister, daughter or son of group members. This also means that the adoptee cannot marry anyone within that clan.

“There’s also an obligation for people who are doing the adopting to embrace, include and educate their adoptees…about the family, the family stories, and what’s considered appropriate or inappropriate,” adds Nyce, who knows at least 10 non-native people who’ve been adopted into her house of Niist’axok’.

Of course, none of this will be news to Northword’s native readers. “We’ve been doing this since we existed,” says Nyce, noting that natives from other tribes can also be adopted into clans or houses. “And we’ve been adopting non-aboriginals at least since the official date of contact (with European immigrants).”

But non-native readers may well wonder, as I did, why adoptions of non-natives take place at all.

According to Nyce, Collison and Patsey, it’s to give a sense of place to people who’ve married into the community, chosen it as their home and/or because they’re recognized for outstanding work in, or on behalf of, the community.

By all accounts, being adopted this way can be a deeply moving experience. Antonia Mills, UNBC First Nations Studies professor, was adopted in the late 1960s by the Beaver people, about 115 kilometers south of Fort Nelson. She and her (then) husband had moved to the Prophet River reserve, as grad students, to do anthropological research.

“It felt incredibly welcoming,” she says. For her, it was the beginning of a deep connection with the Beaver that continues to this day. She believes it positively influenced the way she raised her own kids. They remember their adopted Beaver grandparents with affection.

Dorothy Smith, of the Native Ministries Consortium at the Vancouver School of Theology, can relate. During the 1990s, when she lived in Terrace, she became very aware of Nisga’a land claims issues, and developed a close friendship with Deanna Nyce’s mother, a Tsimshian woman named Bea Vermeer, who died in 1999. When Smith learned that it was Vermeer who had initiated her adoption into the Tsimshians, she was stunned.

“It was truly the highest honour that I’ve received in my life—that Bea and her family wanted me to be a part of that family,” she says.

Doug Donaldson, a councillor for the village of Hazelton, was adopted by Larry Patsey, chief of the Dawamuuwx house in the Gitxsan’s Gisthaast (Fireweed) clan, three years ago.

“We adopted Doug because he looked like an orphan,” joked Patsey, who has seen four non-native adoptions since assuming the role of house chief.

Patsey describes how this adoption came about: For more than 12 years, Donaldson had distinguished himself as a tireless champion of aboriginal rights, and a critical ally. For example, he’d helped found the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en School of Journalism, which trained First Nations to engage with media as journalists and communicators during the high-profile aboriginal rights case of Delgamuukw. He has also served as communications director for the Gitxsan Treaty Office, and helped found the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en Education Society.

“My brother and I really watched Doug for a few years, before asking him whether he wanted a place in our society,” says Patsey. “It was clear that he had a lot of respect for the Gitxsan culture and way of life. When we approached him, he said ‘yes’ right away.”

The name they chose for him—Aks Jabit, which means “has nothing to do,” was a humorous tribute to the well-known fact that Donaldson is pretty much always doing something in the Gitxsan interest.

“I felt very honoured, but I also felt nervous,” recalls Donaldson. “It’s a huge responsibility.” He was keenly aware, perhaps more than most adoptees, of what those responsibilities were, because his wife, Anne Docherty, had been adopted by the Wolf Clan seven years before.

“By being adopted, I am now accountable to my house members—and my actions reflect on all of them,” he explains. “I am obligated to help protect the house territory and ensure its sustainability. And if I bring shame onto myself, I shame the entire house group.”

Donaldson says that adoptees who remain in or near their adoptive communities are also expected to assist, financially or materially, with clan events such as potlatches, weddings and funerals.

But being adopted isn’t all about obligations.

“When I came to the Hazeltons 17 years ago, and saw the beauty of land, the incredible history and culture, I knew I wanted to stay. Now I know I’m connected even deeper.” says Donaldson. “It’s a privilege: by being adopted I’m now part of this larger entity, a family.”

“You can call on that family for help when you need it,” adds Nyce.

For Dorothy Smith, that support meant a lot. “When my ex-husband died, Deanna Nyce and her husband met with me, prayed for me, and offered me gifts and money from family members,” she says. “And being adopted has encouraged me to be more vocal about First Nations people and the issues they face, especially in regards to the church.”

In rarer cases it’s done strictly as an honour, without reciprocal obligations. For example, in 1969 the Nisga’a Eagle clan adopted visiting Indian Affairs Minister (and future Prime Minister) Jean Chretien.

But answers to questions about why specific people are adopted still left me in the dark about something. As far as I know, Canadians of other cultural traditions don’t feel compelled to formalize a new relationship between an individual and the entire community they’ve married into or helped in some significant way.

Antonia Mills has considered questions like these—not just from personal experience, but from the viewpoint of an anthropologist who has been studying First Nations culture for more than 25 years. “These are ‘kin-based societies,’” she says, explaining that First Nations societies are made up of people who use kin terms to define their relationships not only within their communities, but to people outside their communities.

“They’re used to fitting people in by making them part of the kinship system, which is part of the reason for the adoption. When we arrived (in Prophet River), there wasn’t any mechanism, other than adoption, to fit us in. Without it, they wouldn’t quite know how to treat you.”

Gitxsan chief Larry Patsey makes it even clearer that adoption of non-native people isn’t just a friendly gesture, but a necessary protocol to honour people who’ve earned a place in a particular First Nations community. It’s about acceptance, integration, and constructive cross-cultural relationships.

He explained it this way:

“A community is a collective, an effort on everyone’s part. If you’re in a community, you have to share some responsibility. Each family has a responsibility to support each other,” he says.

“If you’re not part of that, it’s hard to fit in, to support the community as a whole. You might go around doing your thing, but you don’t have that sense of belonging.

“Through adoption, we try to overcome that…by making sure every person that comes in to that community has a place they can call home, and support in time of need. We celebrate that.”

© Larissa Ardis 2007